Painting History: It's No Longer Heroic

Roundup: Talking About History

Glenn Dixon, in the Wash Post (April 17, 2004):

History painting once was a fairly straightforward affair. Whether it was Emanuel Leutze's"George Washington Crossing the Delaware" or Jacques-Louis David's"The Death of Socrates," the formula was clear: You need great men, dramatic moments, and flattering lighting.

By the late 20th century, unabashed hero worship was done for. And even when events unfolded in the daily newspaper or played out in real time on TV, you could no longer believe your eyes, no longer trust that the whole story was being told. Being an eyewitness to history didn't necessarily mean you understood what you saw.

"Pop-Agenda," Fusebox's excellent show of provocative new work by Siemon Allen and Dominic McGill, presents history in a way more in tune with our own cynical, chaotic age.

This history is told not by victors, but by two observers in self-imposed exile. Allen is a South African based in Richmond. McGill is a Briton based in New York.

McGill's"Project for a New American Century" avails itself of the scale and scope of history painting, but the artist distrusts the sureness and permanence of the traditional painting. Coiled into loops and hung from the ceiling in the center of the gallery, his 60-foot timeline running from Hiroshima to the present day is executed in dark, smudgy graphite. Where history painting has traditionally been concerned with creating the perfectly planned permanent record, McGill's pencil drawing is another thing altogether. It's about immediacy and accident, rushing to get everything down before it changes into whatever happens next.

Stagy compositions are out, too. In place of images of the great moments of history's power players are simply the names that made the papers, hundreds and hundreds of people, (Whittaker Chambers, Gary Powers, Martin Luther King Jr., Mikhail Gorbachev, Osama bin Laden), places (Dresden, Levittown, Chernobyl), events (Daniel Ellsberg leaks Pentagon Papers, Bloody Sunday, Nuclear Freeze March), policies (Truman Doctrine, Preemption), slogans (By Any Means Necessary), and sound bites (Axis of Evil). Each is inscribed in its own hand-wrought font, and all are roiling like so many worms in a bucket....

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